Superior Listening Skills Make Blind Workers Ideal for Call Monitoring Jobs
In hiring visually impaired employees to fill positions at BPA Worldwide, you might say that company management “saw the light.”
“One day we were reviewing our hiring practices to determine the ideal candidates to perform call monitoring, which is the core of what we do,” said Lisa Renda, President of BPA Worldwide, one of the premier specialists in the development of call and customer contact quality. “Everyone agreed that the most crucial qualifications for the job are good listening skills – not only being able to really hear the interaction between the customer and the call center agent, but being able to pick up on nuances and tone.
“In the past, we looked at applicants based on their college degrees, but there seemed to be no correlation between their education and how well they could listen,” she continued. “Then we wondered if people who read a lot might be the key, but that didn’t pan out either. Ultimately, it came down to one question: what type of person makes the best listener?”
Then, it hit the team like a bolt out of the blue: What about people who, for one reason or another, have heightened listening skills? People who are particularly sensitive to sound or motion. People who use their sense of hearing as their primary source of sensory input.
People who are blind.
“It made perfect sense,” explained Renda. “Like so many others, we had heard that people who lose one of their senses often compensate by sharpening another. In the case of the blind or visually impaired, it’s often their hearing that is enhanced. So we figured, let’s see if there’s anything to it.”
BPA contacted Helen Keller Services for the Blind, a Brooklyn-based organization that helps people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired to develop independence and to participate actively and fully in their communities. Sydelle Postman, an employment specialist at Helen Keller, said that while BPA call was welcome, it was also a bit out of ordinary.
“The unusual thing was that BPA contacted us, not the other way around. Employers rarely initiate the connection; usually our organization is the one doing the outreach to see what employment opportunities are available for our clients. I have to give BPA credit: it was a very astute observation to identify the visually impaired as good candidates for a job that would require solid hearing and listening skills.”
Inspecting the Workplace
With the idea starting to take shape, it was decided that representatives from Helen Keller would visit BPA to ascertain how the company would accommodate visually impaired workers - not only from the perspective of actual job performance but whether the office had the tools and amenities to meet their needs. A three-person team from Helen Keller made the trek to BPA’s Cedarhurst, NY headquarters to assess the situation from every possible angle.
Often, the technology piece is the most critical for the blind in any new-job scenario. Consequently, the first step involved determining whether BPA’s computer system could be retrofitted with software packages designed to aid blind users (one program magnifies text significantly for users who are not totally sightless; a speech-based program is utilized by those with complete blindness).
By her own admission, Renda was somewhat confused as this procedure got under way.
“One of the three people on the team was blind,” she said. “I wondered if there had been a miscommunication, since I hadn’t yet scheduled interviews with any job candidates. It turned out that the blind person was actually the IT person.
“He opened up his laptop and used it as proficiently as a sighted person would, with the aid of auditory cues. That was a real wake-up call for me.”
The initial analysis of the computer system did uncover some problems, though none of them were insurmountable. There was some concern about the sound-based program, a more complicated program that, overall, would make the call monitoring job more difficult. However, it became clear that, with some adept tinkering by the IT person, both computer programs could be used.
All that was left was to review the actual job description and be sure it contained no components that a visually impaired person could not execute. The heart of remote call monitoring job truly is listening - listening in on sales and customer service calls, scoring the agent’s performance against pre-determined criteria, and providing feedback to help them improve. Both sides concurred that the visually impaired or completely sightless job applicant would have as great a chance of success – if not greater – than a sighted candidate.
With everyone offering their enthusiastic approval to this initiative, the next step was the interview process.
“We sent them the first applicants in April 2006, maybe five or six in the first month,” recalled Postman. “They hired a few people, including one person who was totally blind.
Making Everyone Comfortable
With the initial software issues resolved, it became apparent that there was another issue that needed to be quickly addressed: the issue of comfort. Certainly, it was important to make this new group of employees feel comfortable with their surroundings and co-workers. But because the overwhelming majority of BPA employees had never worked with the visually impaired, the reverse was just as critical.
“We wanted to make sure we did and said the right things,” said Renda. “We watched videos on how to interact with visually impaired people, how to ask them if they needed assistance, what not to say, things like that. Over time, as our entire corporate culture accepted this new direction, the video became unnecessary.”
As a social experiment, things seemed to be going smoothly. In fact, BPA received several awards for its work in advancing the recruitment of blind and visually impaired workers, including the 2008 Access Builder Award, presented by Metropolitan Placement Consortium and Baruch College; the New York State 2007 Employer Recognition Award, presented by the New York State Department of Labor; and the October 2007 National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) Award.
But there was really only one bottom line for BPA, the same it was for every employee: quality of performance. On that score, the experiment has been an unmitigated success.
“We’d have to say that our visually impaired employees work as well as, or in many cases, even better than people with sight,” said Renda, who noted that BPA employs about a dozen of these workers at any given time, including several from another agency called The Lighthouse. “Obviously, you have to judge each person as an individual, but as a group, it’s fair to say they’re very dedicated and their performance is superior.
“They are also extremely adaptable and resourceful. One person memorized a list of functions that the computer does not pull up on a regular basis, just so he could use the system more effectively.”
Perseverance is a trait that the visually impaired seem to have in great supply, Renda added.
“Their dependability is remarkable. They are well-trained in how to get around in bad weather. We have one person who has to take several trains to get here, so he has to start out extremely early in the morning, but he’s always on time.
“Based on their performance, we have promoted several of our visually impaired employees. Many are now supervising sighted people; one is managing a team of workers, another is involved in quality control. We now use Helen Keller Services on a regular basis, as one of the many recruitment tools we turn to in the normal course of filling positions.”
Based on these results, it would appear that BPA management was correct in its assessment that many of the visually impaired are better listeners. Bobby Grogan, a BPA employee who has been almost 90 percent blind since birth, offered a more succinct explanation.
“I’ve heard all my life, that the blind make better listeners,” said Grogan. “I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe it. Maybe it’s just that we’re a different type of listener with a different listening skill. When you don’t learn things visually, you have to learn to listen harder and fine tune your listening skills. You’re listening for things that a sighted person doesn’t.
“One thing I would say is that we can listen for a longer period of time than other people. It’s sort of like an avid reader – we can just stay with it much longer without losing focus. Certainly, the ability not to be visually distracted plays into that.”
Hearing a Smile
On one point, Grogan agrees whole-heartedly with Renda. He can detect tone and nuance that others may not recognize immediately – or at all, for that matter.
“There’s no question that we can perceive emotion better and faster,” said Grogan, who has been promoted twice in the two years he’s been with BPA and is currently a team leader. “We might recognize those things the way sighted people recognize a visual cue like a smile or a frown. We definitely listen for tone and friendliness, which are essential parts of the call monitoring process that sometimes go undetected.”
Grogan’s rise through the ranks has not been an uncommon one for the BPA’s visually impaired workers. And it’s one that makes Renda and the entire management team feel good about the company’s collective social conscience. But make no mistake: this was never a philanthropic crusade to “hire the handicapped.” This was a sound business decision that has reaped tangible rewards for all parties.
“It’s true that some companies create lower-level jobs for people with visual impairment based on a desire to ‘do the right thing,’ or because an organization like ours convinces them to it,” said Postman. “In BPA’s case, it was never about that. It was about finding the best possible person to fill a position that required a very specific, very specialized skill set.
“These are real jobs being performed by people who were recruited based solely on their abilities. I have no doubt that BPA feels good about providing a chance to people who often can’t find one. But I also know that they won’t hesitate to let go of any employees who aren’t pulling their weight, which is exactly how it should be.”
As for Grogan, he is happy to be in a position where his strengths are maximized and his weaknesses are minimized.
“I’ve never worked at a place like this before,” he said. “I’ve always felt I had a great deal to offer a company, but I just hadn’t been able to find the right one. Here, my so-called ‘weakness’ is actually a strength. I’m given the opportunity to do pursue a professional career, and at the end of the day, I go home just like everyone else.”
We hear you, Bobby. Loud and clear.
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi